The simple fact of being a member of the clergy doesn’t necessarily make one less qualified than anyone else to thoughtfully and responsibly review what South Carolina kids are taught about reproductive health, family issues and pregnancy prevention.
It doesn’t make one more qualified either.
But a South Carolina law requires that school districts form health advisory committees to periodically assess materials used for sex education and related lessons, and at least three clergy members have to have seats at the table.
Two teachers, two students and two community members unaffiliated with the school district must also take part, along with two health professionals. In other words, medical experts make up about 15% of advisory committees that deal overwhelmingly with medical issues.
Again, that doesn’t necessarily mean that those committees aren’t doing acceptable work. But emphasizing a religious perspective over a health care one raises concerns about the practicality of information that young people need to make healthy, safe decisions.
South Carolina requires reproductive education starting in sixth grade and allows age-appropriate lessons prior to that. But local school boards have a lot of leeway in determining what gets taught. That’s where the local advisory committees step in.
And while there’s not much evidence to suggest a direct connection between predominantly non-health professional advisory committees and South Carolina’s underwhelming statistics on youth sexual health, the numbers should raise eyebrows.
In 2017, South Carolina had among the highest rates nationwide of chlamydia among women and men between the ages of 15 and 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ditto for gonorrhea.
Also as of 2017, only about 60 percent of adolescents had been vaccinated for human papillomavirus (HPV) — overwhelmingly the most common sexually transmitted infection and one that can cause a variety of cancers.
Over the last five years, the South as a region had by far the largest number of adolescents and adults diagnosed with HIV. South Carolina ranked ninth for new diagnoses in 2017.
It’s worth noting that state law prevents discussion of “alternate sexual lifestyles” — except in the context of disease prevention.
South Carolina’s teen birth rate has dropped dramatically over the past two decades or so, along with the national rate, which has been more than cut in half. But the state still has a higher-than-average number of young pregnancies.
These trends suggest that South Carolina has plenty of room for improvement in educating young people about how to live safer, healthier, happier lives.
There’s no reason why religious leaders shouldn’t be a part of that discussion, especially outside of the classroom. But the law should put a higher priority on the kind of data-based, medically accurate information most likely to protect the lives and livelihoods of South Carolina’s young people.